Ben Chenoweth, Educational Designer / eLearning Coordinator at the Melbourne School of Theology discusses the importance of contextual assessments that engage a distance student’s ministry context.
Connecting with Local Pastors – and their Libraries
There is one area where distance students may be significantly at a disadvantage compared with on-campus students, and that is access to a theological library. While there are great on-line resources (such as EBSCOhost), and ebooks are becoming increasingly available, there is still plenty of material that can only be accessed in physical form. And if a distance student is located outside of a comfortable commuting distance from a theological library, then they will potentially struggle to access sufficient research materials. This will be especially true for students in graduate-level courses.
I want to make two suggestions that may go some way towards ameliorating this problem. First, we should encourage distance students to connect with theologically-trained people in their immediate vicinity, and more importantly any resources that they may have. For example, it is quite likely that pastors in the student’s location will have sizable personal theological libraries of their own. And not just the student’s pastor; get students to connect with all of them – the resulting ecumenical breadth might actually be stimulating!
Setting Contextual Assessments
Second, we should be setting contextually-based assessments. What I mean by this is assessments that leverage the student’s own local ministry context. Instead of asking students to write an exegetical essay, we should be giving students the opportunity to generate something that involves exegesis: like preaching a sermon on a specific passage of Scripture or presenting a short series of Bible studies in their home (or youth) group. Then, in addition to submitting their written notes, the student could submit a video of the sermon or Bible study. As an alternative to a thematic essay, students could preach a thematic sermon or generate a YouTube video or audio podcast. Assessments of this sort have the added advantage of getting (hopefully!) good scholarly-based theological material out into the wider church.
Focusing on Ministry Context
It is true that assessments of this kind still require access to resources. But my sneaking suspicion is that it might be easier to prepare a sermon without direct access to a theological library than it would be to do an equivalent essay. (Consider: how many pastors would be accessing an institution-based library each week as part of their sermon preparation?) Plus, because sermons and Bible studies need to be relevant to the wider church, students will be encouraged not to lose focus on the application of their theological research. And this, I think, will have significant pedagogical value. After all, if you want someone to really learn something, get them to teach it to someone else.
There’s also another reason why focusing assessments on the distance student’s ministry context is worth doing. Research into distance education suggests that this is precisely where spiritual formation most readily occurs. (Dianne Hockridge has been doing great work in this area. See, for example, https://www.academia.edu/3724763/Whats_the_problem_Spiritual_formation_in_distance_and_online_theological_education.) By setting contextual assessments, assessments that are integrally linked into the student’s existing ministry, we are therefore encouraging spiritual formation to take place. And I think you will agree, that’s definitely something worth striving for!